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Official Religion and Popular Religion in Pre-Exilic Ancient Israel

Presented at the twenty-third annual
Rabbi Louis Feinberg Memorial Lecture in Jewish Studies, Department of Judaic Studies,
University of Cincinnati, May 11, 2000
(Continued from page 2)

Popular and Official Religion

    The study of popular religion has become something of a hot item among scholars of religion. It should be stressed that up until 30 years ago the subject was virtually non-existent. What little was said about popular religion in the academy was generally not very flattering. Scholars tended to speak of it as a degraded, primitive, irrational form of religiosity. The academic establishment, as Peter Williams has observed, typically viewed popular religion as “at best irrelevant and at worst reprehensible” (1989: 6). Instead, their attention was fixed on official religion, which was seen as refined, coherent, rational--truly representative of the religion under examination and thus worthy of academic scrutiny. When confronted with the choice of either studying the often-engrossing superstitions of Sicilian peasants or a Vatican encyclical, most scholars opted for the latter.

    With the explosion of new political and intellectual agendas in the 1960s the study of popular religiosity finally became a legitimate scholarly endeavor. Buoyed by the emergence of Liberation Theology in Latin America (Maldonado 1986:3), and a general air of anti-authoritarianism, the academy began to produce a large number of articles and monographs devoted to this issue.

    Over the past few decades the term “popular religion” has been applied to phenomena as diverse as snake-handling cults in Appalachia (Williams 1989:142-150), Italian-Americans worshiping the Madonna in Harlem at the turn of the 19th century (Orsi:1985), Mexican-American women praying to our Lady of Guadalupe (Rodriguez:1994), Greek pilgrims crawling on their hands and knees to catch a  glimpse of an icon on the Greek island of Tinos (Dubisch:1990), to name but a few.

    If any consensus has been achieved across thirty years of interdisciplinary research, it is that there is really no consensus as to what “popular religion” actually means (Lanternari 1982; Isambert 1977; Berlinerblau 1996; Berlinerblau 2001a; Kselman 1986:25, 36; Badone 1990: 4; Pace 1979: 72; Carroll 1992: 6). It is variously defined as the religion of the masses, the religion of the people, the religion of the majority, the religion of the oppressed, the religion of the poor and socio-economically non-privileged strata, magical religion, non-elite religion, or any combination thereof (see Berlinerblau 2001a).

    After many years of exploring the subject we have come to understand that any effort to define popular religion must see it as something that exists in relation with official religion. As Ellen Badone remarks we need to look at “the dialectical character of their interrelationship” (1990:6; also see Maldonado 1989: 6). For it is an official religion that almost always gets to decide what popular religion is. So let me start by throwing out an elementary definition, one which I shall refine momentarily: Official religion is that religion within a society that gets to decide what popular religion is.5 The power to define is no mean feat. To tell somebody that his mode of belief is not official, wrong, misguided, etc., is a luxury that accrues to the powerful. So let us extend our definition: Official religion is that religion which can exert power in its relation with all other religious groups.

    A work like Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms helps us illustrate this point. Ginzburg’s famous study explores the inquisition and eventual execution of a sixteenth-century heretic living in the Italian Friuli. The miller, a certain Menocchio, was a curious character who seems to have come into contact with ideas associated with the Protestant Reformation. Idiosyncratic to the core, Menocchio would often make a variety of un-Catholic pronouncements to his Catholic co-religionists. He believed that confession was useless, explaining to his inquisitors: “You might as well go and confess to a tree as to priests and monks” (1982: 10). To the same astonished officials he referred to the host as “a piece of dough.” (1982: 10). He insisted that the world was created out of rotten cheese. After numerous proceedings (some of them as comical as they were tragic) Menocchio was tried and sentenced as a heretic. He was burned at the stake in 1599.

    This example illustrates what we might call official religion of the pure type. Here we have a religious institution (i.e., the Church) that has at its disposal the full institutional power of the state: armies, inquisitors, courts of law, legal doctrine, prisons, guards, tools of torture, and so on. Equipped in this manner, official religion retains the capacity to define what is heretical or “popular” and act as it sees fit. So far, then, we have seen a correlation between official religion and the monopolization of the instruments of force.

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